Opinion 73: My Dear Comrade Boris Mityagin, This is [2006,USA] Not [1970,USSR], So Stop Grumbling About Your "Lazy" Students and Try to Be the Best Possible Teacher for THEM

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: Aug. 2, 2006.

In the Aug. 2006 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, the great functional analyst, Boris Mityagin, from Ohio State University, laments about the poor motivation and preparation of his students and attributes it to student evaluations, especially those posted on the web-that in addition to sample exams that he also deplores-he believes contribute to grade inflation and pressure professors, in order to be popular and get good evaluations, to lower the standards and pass people who do not deserve to pass.

Mityagin also quotes a few student evaluations from the RateMyProfessor site of random professors. The point of these quotations was to illustrate that the students' definition of excellence is an easy A, and all they want is to maximize their grade with the minimum of work.

This got me curious about how students rate Mityagin. So I went to the Ohio-State RMP site and looked up what Mityagin's students had to say about him, to get the other side of the coin. The students' comments about Mityagin were just as funny as the ones he quotes in his letter. They claim that he is very hard to understand, very unfair, way too harsh, and a large part of the class winds up dropping it.

One student claims that he is a communist. While this is most likely false (like most Russian emigres he is probably the opposite), there is a grain of truth in this "accusation". Like so many Soviet mathematicians who moved to the West, he expects students to have the same level of motivation, ability, and preparation, as when they were students, under the communist technocratic regime. Sorry, Boris, but times and location have changed. This is democracy where everyone goes to college, not just the top five percent. Also, even the top five percent today are not what they used to be. They have so many distractions and it is so hard to focus on studying.

Hence, for better or for worse, the students that you have now are not the same as your classmates when you were a student. But it is them, or their parents and their state that pay your salary, that enables you to spend most of your time on what you like to do best, namely your research. So don't be ungrateful and try to do your best with the available input.

So you are right, of course, but the students are right too. It is not their fault that they live in our culture and that they were poorly prepared. Having unrealistic expectations and flunking half of them, and talking over their heads, will not make them better students. It is not too late to try and teach them, as much as possible, basic stuff. If you have to review that 1/(a+b) is not 1/a+1/b do not lose your temper. Just explain to them that not every operation is linear and if you plug-in a=1 and b=1, then the left side is 1/2 and the right side is 2. Also don't get mad when they think that ln(a+b) equals ln(a)+ln(b). They were taught in algebra that multiplication is distributive over addition and you can't blame them that math notation is ambiguous and context-dependent and that A(a+b) could mean A*(a+b), or the function A evaluated at a+b. If ln would have stood for l*n, then ln(a+b) could mean l*n*(a+b), and they would have been right.

Talk to your students, and find out what they don't know and review it. Basic algebra is far more important than calculus, so don't hesitate to spend time reviewing algebra and even fractions. You don't have to pass everyone, but you do have to come to grips with the fact that you live in Columbus, Ohio, USA, and the current year is 2006.

Your students may be lazy, but "what you say is what you are", and you are lazy too. Try to work hard at being a better teacher for your actual students, motivate them and work around their poor preparation and poor motivation. Especially do not be a disciple of Shamai but rather that of Hillel who, about 2000 years ago said

א י ן   ה ק פ ד ן   מ ל מ ד  

which roughly says: "the strict one does not teach [well]".

Boris Mityagin's response.
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